Marjane Satrapi and the Power Behind “Persepolis”
Photo: Chronicle/Darryl Bush
“People without a sense of humor are not very smart,” hollered author Marjane Satrapi during a candid heart-to-heart conversation at the Annenberg Center of Communication, University of Pennsylvania on Thursday, March 14. A vast audience of over 300 students, academics and fans broke into giggly applause.
Satrapi is a widely loved French Iranian author who explores the gaping divide between East and West through powerfully evocative graphic novels. Her most celebrated work is “Persepolis”—an autobiography that takes the form of an adult comic book. Redolent with rebellious passion and insouciant wit, Persepolis received enormous success and was later adapted into a film directed by Satrapi herself. Persepolis the film went on to win numerous awards, including the César Awards for Best Feature Film and Best Writing, and the much coveted Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year in 2008.
Satrapi was invited by the Levin Family Dean’s Forum, hosted by University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences. The forum is committed to highlighting innovation in the Liberal Arts by presenting leading intellectual figures to celebrate the richness of art and history since 1984. She spoke in conversation with Fatemeh Shams, an assistant professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Penn about Iranian politics, Middle Eastern culture and the debilitating cynicism induced by living under war and trauma.
“It has been a longstanding dream of mine to meet Marjane Satrapi because as an Iranian immigrant myself, I saw myself in Persepolis. Satrapi’s elegant and assertive voice speaks out not only to the Iranian diaspora community but also to a much wider group of people experiencing the struggle of otherness who find themselves disempowered. Satrapi’s work motivates them to occupy space, express themselves more freely and shake off the feeling of being aliens,” said Shams, setting the tone of the talk. Shams then went on to quiz Satrapi about the avenues through which she draws inspiration, and the motivations behind her writing.
“When I came to France at the age of 24, people had a lot of questions,” responded Satrapi when asked why she uses comics to get her words across. “They had a lot of negative misconceptions about Iran. And, there is nobody more convinced than an ignorant person. The less people know, the more they are convinced about the legitimacy of their limited knowledge. I grew tired of explaining myself over and over again so I decided to finish the discussion once and for all. The easiest way for me to express the complexity of Iranian culture and address xenophobia was to talk through pictures,” she added. “I don’t like talking, talking, talking,” Satrapi jested, shaking her head and mimicking a talking mouth through hand gestures. Her voice was drained by the excited cheers of a merry audience.
“What did film give to you that graphic novel did not?” inquired Shams. “I had no desire, no whim to pursue film. In fact, I was forced into it by a friend who wanted to see Persepolis adapted for the big screen,” answered Satrapi. “I was afraid of messing it up because as you know, adaptations aren’t always a success. However, when I was handed so much money by Celluloid Films to venture into cinema, I couldn’t resist. I found myself diving head-first into an ocean without knowing how to swim,” she added. Going back to Shams’ initial question, Satrapi said, “There is nothing more efficient than film to get a message across. I think you can invade the world with cinema. Even though I was initially reluctant, I found myself slowly warming up to this new form of art.”
The discussion progressed with Shams comparing Satrapi’s Persepolis with her other novel, Embroideries. “There is a marked difference in both the language and the drawings in both books. What spurred this stylistic departure?” she inquired, pulling up a pictorial representation of the contrast she was referring to on the projector screen behind her for the audience to see. “I used very simple, serious art in Persepolis because I didn’t want to distract my readers from the complicated subject matter. Embroideries, however, is a conversation between two women about sexuality in the conservative Iranian society. It is more lighthearted, gossipy and humorous because it is in the form of friendly banter,” answered Satrapi.
Satrapi further discussed the power of language and the way it stimulates thinking and shapes minds. “Language is not just a matter of saying words a specific way,” she corroborated. “It is a way of thinking. With each language we learn, we learn a new way of looking at the world. For example, in French there is no word for ‘fun’ because French people don’t have fun. French people have many qualities like sarcasm, but fun is not French,” she grinned as the audience broke into a spurt of laughter.
Halfway through, the focus of the conversation shifted from Satrapi’s work to her views on politics and culture. Satrapi and Shams lamented on the ill-treatment of women in Iran and the many forms of social and legal restrictions on female mobility. “Iranian women are lions. In a strictly patriarchal society, they continue to push nonsensical boundaries that put bars on their self-expression without fearing the Satrapi also expressed her dismay at the American government’s involvement in Iran, saying that terror can not be fought with terror. The Iran War served as the backdrop of Persepolis because she wanted to paint a ghastly picture of war—a picture that is devoid of any romantic ideals and bombards the reader with a torrent of anti-war sentiment similar to the ballistic missiles being dropped over the characters in Persepolis.
It is Satrapi’s candor that allows her to connect with audiences so well. “I loved seeing Satrapi in person,” exclaimed Patricia Fernandez, a sophomore at Temple University, with a big smile on her face. “Satrapi was exactly like I imagined her to be, with her sharp humor and scathing honesty,” she said further.
Mrs. Peterson was another attendee at the event who teaches English to high school students. “Persepolis is part of our curriculum and my class is currently on its second last chapter. It was only natural for me to rush over when I heard Satrapi was in Philadelphia because her work has made us laugh, cry and sometimes do both at the same time. My students are so deeply engrossed in the world of Persepolis’ Marji even though she comes from a completely different world,” she said, adding how she couldn’t wait to tell her students that she had finally met “their Marji.”
The event came to an end with Satrapi’s final statement against extremism and bigotry, whether it is in the form of terrorism in the name Islam or through war-crimes undertaken beneath the guise of protecting American citizens. As she bowed before her audience, Satrapi the novelist and Satrapi the Iranian immigrant merged together, no longer just a 2D comic in “Persepolis”, but a three-dimensional speaker, hoping to share her enlightened insights with the world.